Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Galicia - Day 2, Santiago de Compostella

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

After a good night’s sleep we all met for breakfast in the hotel dining room. This didn’t consist of much, just a croissant with jam but lots of really hot cups of tea, which was the most important thing. This was a nice hotel and it was disappointing that we were not staying longer but we had to check out because tonight we had to return to the hotel with the faulty plumbing (I don’t think so) so we packed, said goodbye and drove off to the airport to meet Micky who was due to arrive on the mid morning flight. The plane arrived on time and now that the four were five again (after some mobile phone confusion) we set off to visit the city of Santiago de Compostella.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000. I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Chrisendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been thoughout history, of the important 9th century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James. Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great (Santiago means saint James) and legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city.

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here today who could be identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell. The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination. It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God's hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

There was certainly no mistaking that this is a very holy city indeed and the route to the Cathedral was lined with churches, monasteries and seminaries and finally we emerged into the central square, the Praza de Obradoiro, where the Cathedral, which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins, loomed high above in a most spectacular and impressive way. Inside, the Cathedral is nearly a hundred metres long and over twenty metres high and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain as well as being one of the biggest in Europe.

Micky wouldn’t go inside in case he was converted or more likely turned to stone or something but the rest of us had a good look around but it was approaching lunch time and so we declined to join the long queue of pilgrims and visitors who were waiting in line to visit the crypt and see the box that contains the bones and relics of St James and left by a side door that opened onto another remarkable courtyard that was surrounded by huge medieval buildings and magnificent statues.

We walked for a while through the ancient streets and through a quaint little green open space and then our thoughts turned to food so we returned to the city and upon our recommendation, from our previous visit, went to the Restaurante de Buen Pulpo for a tapas lunch. Disappointingly there were no sardines that we had told everyone about, but we chose instead calamari, clams, Galician cod, tortilla and salad and some Estrella Galicia of course. The food was reasonably priced and tasted divine and afterwards we left the little restaurant and continued to explore some more of the old city and after a couple of hours I felt confident enough to declare to myself that this one of the nicest places that I have ever visited.

Because of its Celtic roots Galicia doesn’t have sombreros or flamenco or even bull fighting and in a side street adjacent to the cathedral there was a man squeezing the life out of some bagpipes that sounded as though he was castrating an extremely uncooperative cat. It was excruciatingly painful so we moved on and walked around the streets for a second time. It is an interesting fact that Galicia has a culture, which is both unique and distinct from the rest of Spain, and the core of this difference is centred upon Galicia’s identity as a Celtic, rather than a Latin or Hispanic sub nation. Galicia along with Andalusia, Catalonia and the Basque Country are acknowledged as independent historical nationalities under the Spanish Constitution and as a consequence enjoy special rights and privileges.

One of the really good things about Santiago de Compostella was that it felt like being in Spain and not like the little England of the south and east coast costas. Galicia is a popular holiday choice with Spanish people living in the south and central cities of the country because they like to holiday in the north to escape the oppressive heat and enjoy Galicia's famous seafood. In August alone, eight million Spaniards travel north from cities like Madrid and Barcelona to the more temperate climate of Galicia with its green scenery and spectacular beaches. The Galician climate though is changeable and the region is often referred to in Spain as the wet or rainy region. Despite this, it is those in the south and central cities of Spain that flee to Galicia in July and August to enjoy the hot, but not oppressive, summer weather. The local geography is also dramatically different from that of the central and southern regions with meadows, hills and mountains and is known affectionately in Iberia as green Spain.

We made a second circuit of the ancient city and this was when we became aware of the hypnotic appeal of retail outlets for the girls. There was a full rage of shops from expensive boutiques to cheap market stalls selling trinkets but all of them just drew them in by a sort of invisible tractor beam. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised because Sue is a a self confessed shopping junkie and the others are of similar disposition. They didn’t need anything or even want anything, they weren’t going to buy anything but they just couldn’t help being sucked in to jewellers or shoe shops just to take a look around. That is the difference between men and women and shops, women browse and men (who have a more advanced shopping gene) are purposeful and the two styles are completely irreconcilable.

After a final drink in Santiago de Compostella at a terrace garden bar we returned to the car park and drove with great expectation the twenty kilometres along the Autopista del Atlantico back to Pontescures and the Hotel Corona de Galicia. Upon arrival it seemed that (surprise, surprise) the bathroom problem had been rectified and we checked into our rooms on the fourth floor. For a two star hotel they were of a high standard with good furnishings and surprisingly perfect plumbing.

There was more disappointment to come however because the bar failed to produce the tapas that we had become accustomed to last time and the dining room failed to produce the same standard of food that we had enjoyed in July. I think this is an important point to bear in mind, never make recommendations and absolutely never take people back to somewhere that you have enjoyed because it just might not be the same the second time around. It didn’t matter though because tonight’s meal was on the house (or so we thought) and the rooms were comfortable and above average so after dinner we played a couple of hands of cards and then called it a night.

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